A STATEMENT ON
METAPHOR I C SENTENCES
Cognitive Science Research
A STATEMENT ON
METAPHOR I C SENTENCES
19B9 No. E9
Communications should be sent to:
Department of Psychology
S-ES3 50 LUND, Sweden
This paper aims at pointing out the differing interpretations of
metaphoric sentences' comprehension as developed in the recent
psychol inguist ic literature. The inadequacies of the psychol inguist ic
theories of language processing which rest on the assumption according
to which language is the expression of a relatively autonomous cognitive
activity are highlighted in the interpretation of metaphors as anomalous
sentences. The rejection of the thesis of the anomalous character of
metaphors due to the acknowledgement of the role of the semantic
component of words, of the extra-linguistic context in which metaphors
are produced, and more generally of the pragmatic factors influencing
comprehension, invited the new view according to which metaphors are to
be conceived as conveying some cognitive re-organization. The ecological
approach to cognitive activity stressing the role played by the 'events'
in modeling comprehension can be regarded as the best theoretical frame
according to which it is possible to establish a link between language
and perception and redefine the whole problem of language use.
A STATEMENT ON METAPHOR I C SENTENCES
In what follows I will argue that for a sound psychological
understanding of cognitive human activity, meaning has to be re-defined
on wider, extral inguistic grounds, considering perception as well as
shared knowledge of world events.
The inadequacies of the current psychol inguistic theories of language
processing, which are based on a purely linguistic interpretation of
meaning, will be highlighted with special reference to the study of
metaphorical sentence comprehension.
In its simplest form, the so called nominal metaphor, a metaphorical
sentence is one in which the name referring to a person, object, fact,
or event is given a different name which refers to a different person,
object, fact, or event. So the sentence 'My surgeon was a butcher' is a
metaphor since a name, the so-called 'topic', in this case 'surgeon', is
given another name, the so-called 'vehicle', in this case 'butcher'.
Upon hearing this sentence, the listener understands what the sentence
is meant to convey: the person who uttered it was really dissatisfied
with his surgeon.
The listener comprehends the meaning of the sentence because there are
some properties shared by both the topic and the vehicle; a sub-set of
the properties of the vehicle are referred to the topic. The set of
shared properties which set forth the resemblance between the topic and
the vehicle are called the 'ground', while the other properties which
definitely establish the differences between them are called the
'tension' (Richards, 1936).
In the present talk we are mainly interested in showing tne difficulties
encountered by researchers in explaining the comprehension of
metaphorical sentences when language and meaning are assumed as
separated from the other cognitive processes.
The new concept of meaning required can be conceived of as the product
of the cognitive activity involved in making sense from our experiences
in which the physical environment, other people, their beliefs and
social exchanges, have a fundamental role as shown by recent evidence on
cognitive processes. This interpretation compels us to go beyond the
traditional boundaries of the linguistic realm toward the
acknowledgement of the unitary and complex character of cognitive
activity as suggested by the ecological approach.
- fletaphor as 'anomaly'
During the seventies, psycholinguists renewed their interest in
metaphors thanks to the success of Chomsky's theory in promoting
fruitful research on cognitive activity.
In his 1957 and 1965 linguistic theory, Chomsky held that the generative
rules found in natural languages required a distinctive linguistic
capacity, that there were differences between specifically linguistic
and other cognitive abilities. In so arguing, he intended to stress the
independence of the linguistic system from the other cognitive processes
such as memory and perception. At the same time he established the
logical priority of language in knowledge production (Greene, 197E).
Language, in the broad sense which included information processing,
could be the key to our cognitive activity, it could offer a new simple
theoretical architecture with which mental work could be modeled (Lyons,
As to the study of metaphorical sentences, the subordination of
semantics to syntax, on which Chomsky's theory rested, favored the
consideration of metaphors as anomalous, defective sentences which could
be explained only by the violation of some selection restriction rules
(Katz 2, Fodor, 1963). The only way to explain a speaker's ability in
comprehending metaphors and other deviant and anomalous sentences was to
suggest that defective sentences could be reduced to a grammatical
paraphrase through a set of entailment or transformation rules.
According to this perspective, metaphors could be understood thanks to
their literal counterparts.
The solution envisaged, however, was responsible for the deep conceptual
change which affected psychol inguist ic research a few years later when
the fundamental role of semantics in comprehending language was
Two aspects cf Chomsky's solution helped this development. One was the
distinction between literal and figurative or metaphorical language, and
the other was the concept of anomalous or defective sentence.
At the end of the seventies, both the linguistic and the
psychol ingui st ic approaches to the study of metaphors converged. It was
assumed that metaphors could be comprehended only in relation to their
literal equivalents and through a number of steps consisting in
retrieving its literal meaning, in discarding it as nonsensical, and
finally in grasping the figurative one. This common view helped to
produce a great deal of experimental research based on the response
latencies paradigm (see Hoffman, 198^ for a review).
The theoretical frame provided by Chomsky lead to the rediscovery of
both the study of cognitive processes and of metaphorical language, even
though in an indirect way in the case of the latter as it was exactly
the defective character of metaphors which made them interesting for
The rise in the renewed interest in metaphorical language from the
peculiar psychol inguistic perspective during these years has been
parallel with the acknowledgment of the insufficiencies of the
interpretations mainly based on the syntactic, the semantic, and the
pragmatic dimensions of language.
- From 'anomaly' to conceptual re-organization
At the end of the seventies, when the sequential model of the human
information processing approach was shown to be fairly inadequate for
the interpretation of complex cognitive processes in need for much more
global accounts, the "anomaly" theory of metaphor comprehension began to
elicit scholars' criticism from several converging perspectives.
The distinction between literal and metaphorical language, and the
ensuing problematic distinction between literal and metaphorical
meaning, began to be guestioned (Gibbs, 198't; Dascal, 1987): both these
uses of language require the same cognitive processing to be
comprehended. The opportunity to explain metaphors on more articulated
grounds than the mere anomaly thesis or the usually assumed syntactic
approach became clearer day by day.
Even the analysis of the semantic features of words and concepts used in
creating implicit resemblance in metaphors proved not to be strong
enough a strategy to explain the m.etaphor ical meaning of the sentences
(Tversky, 1977; Ortony et al.,1985). The renewed interest in semantics
and the acknowledgment of the role of meaning in comprehending language
alerted scholars to the importance of both the linguistic and
extral inguistic context in which metaphors are produced. Actually, it
was shown that when metaphors follow a sentence acting as a linguistic
or pragmatic context, they are understood more easily and more quickly
than when they were presented as isolated sentences (Gildea ?«
Glucksberg, 1983; Ortony, 1979).
Moreover, many sentences can be considered at the same time as literal
or metaphorical and accordingly they can be understood only in relation
to^ the specific extral inguistic context in which they are uttered.
At the same time Glucksberg and colleagues showed that the comprehension
difficulties of metaphors to be judged true or false were not
responsible for the time required by them to be responded to which was
longer than that required by literal sentences. He argued that this
effect was due to the peculiar task subjects were engaged in. Actually
there is an interference effect between the logical truth value of the
sentences when used literally and their pragmatic truth value assumed
as true by people who in comprehending them follow the Quality Maxim by
The rejection of the thesis of the anomalous character of metaphors due
to the (Tientioned developments, invited the new view according to which
metaphors are to be conceived as conveying some cognitive re-
organization. Federn Kittay observes:
'But if metaphors are ccgr.-ltive it is not because they add to our store
of factual data. It is because a metaphor causes us to think about
soiriething in a new way, to reorganize the concepts we already have, and
to form new conceptual i zat ions ... Th is is because the conceptual
incongruity, when appropriate pragmatic considerations are operative,
requires a conceptual resolution (an at least tentative conceptual
reorganization)' ( Federn Kittay, 1987, 75).
It is at this point that metaphors interpretation consists no longer in
a mere linguistic analysis of the words expressed, but in the analysis
of the concepts implied, thus establishing a new relationship between
language and knowledge. However it is important to stress that the new
approach required is feasible only if both meaning and comprehension are
- Toward an ecological approach to the study of metaphors
There are signs that the study of metaphors comprehension can help fill
the gaps among perception, language, and experience sooner, and perhaps
better, than the study of the literal use of language. However, it is
becoming clearer and clearer that new perspectives are necessary to
explain also how people understand literal language as really spoken in
evEryday life. Comprehension, and hence meaning, are in need of a
redefinition. Potter, Valian and Faulconer, studying mental
representation of meaning, discovered that it is not verbal, as is
usually assumed, nor imagistic. On the contrary, as they say:
' an abstract conceptual representation of the sentence was compared
with a similarly abstract representation of the probe, whether the
latter was presented as a word or a drawing' (Potter, Valian, Faulconer,
Their experimental findings allowed them to state that the pragmatic
implications of a sentence depend precisely on such an abstract,
conceptual representation common to language and perception. This result
marked the end of the primacy of language in modeling cognition, even
though many researchers still refute this evidence.
From a different perspective, Clark and Marshall (1981) studying one of
the most basic linguistic phenomena - definite reference - could not
help but apply the pragmatic concept of mutual knowledge to explain it.
Mutual knowledge refers to the speaker, the listener, and the objects
referred to, as physically, linguistically, universally known within the
community they belong to.
Rosh ' s theory of 'prototypes' (1975; Rosch & Mervis, 1975) acknowledged
the graded structure of our partitioning of the world, thus providing
natural concepts with a new flexibility due to the effect of
'typicality' and of 'goodness' of the examplars and also helping to
understand the vicarious nature of the meaning of the words used to
More recently, Murphy and Medin (1985) advanced the thesis according to
which cohesion can be achieved in conceptual structure only if there is
a 'glue' amiong the concepts themselves from which cohesion arises. The
'glue' is not dependent only on shared features of similarity among
concepts; it presupposes that people have a general knowledge of the
world 50 that a concept can be defined by both the attributes and
relations shared by the single objects that are subsumed under that
concept and by the attributes and relations that the peculiar concept
shares with the other concepts in people general world knowledge.
Also Barsalou (1987) studying categorization found that people can
construct new categories on the spot which can be created to pursue
novel goals: the so called 'ad hoc' categories. 'Ad hoc' categories
share with the 'natural' and the so called 'goal-derived' categories a
graded structure according to which there are exemplars of the category
that are more typical than others. He argues that the flexibility
exhibited by categories is a fundamental property of the human cognitive
- The ecological approach
These arguments on sentence representation, definite reference, concepts
and categorization processes may be considered as an independent
development of the theses held well before by the psycholinguists who
had first set the program for a cognitive ecological psychology centered
on the symbolic activity. It is worth mentioning the study by Bransford
and McCarrell in which they originated a new perspective in the study of
comprehension and meaning. Actually their position was the following:
'...one's knowledge of his environment is considerably richer than
knowledge of the perceptual characteristics of isolated
objects. . .perceptual ly derived knowledge entails knowledge of rjg.L§i_.l°IIs.
rather than things .. .Linguistic comprehension can also be characterized
as 'the grasping of relations', linguistic comprehension depends upon
the comprehender ' s cognitive, alinguistic ability to activate knowledge
that will allow relations to be grasped. ( Bransford tx hcCarrell, 197^,
In their view, language is comprehended thanks to the cognitive activity
consisting in both defining the instructions for creating meaning and
grasping the semantic content of sentences which produces their
comprehension. As they put it:
' Ss do make cognitive contributions while comprehending... certain
contributions are prerequisites for achieving a click or
comprehension. .. knowledge of abstract constraints on entities and
relations plays an important role in determining S= ' contributions...
meaning is the result of such contributions and is best viewed as
something that is 'created' rather than stored and retrieved' (Bransford
t flcCarrell , 1974, 201 ) .
In sentence comprehension individual word perception is not the most
important thing. Actually the same word may have many different senses
according to the context in which it is embedded. Context, here, is
meant in a very broad sense since objects are not identifieo as iTiere
objects, instead they are understood relative to their roles in events.
So there is no principled distinction in the processes needed in
comprehending literal and metaphorical language: what matters is the
event in which language takes place.
As the seminal researches on metaphor by Verbrugge and MacCarrell (1977)
clearly show, the relation of similarity and resemblance on which
metaphors rest can be best explained by assuming that the differing
salience of the 'features' of the entities involved is a function of the
particular event in which they participate, rather than by considering
it^as dependent on the specific context in which the metaphor is
produced, be it linguistic or extral inguistic .
The problem of comprehension, as well as that of word meaning does not
lie in widening the range of constraints, but in determining what
constraints need to be imposed on words to make sentences and
metaphorical combinations interpretable:
'Language operates as an elaborate system of constraints that, among
other things can guide the reinterpretation of types of experiences
specified originally in perception and action... Metaphorici ty is not a
property of sentences as objects, but is a type of dynamic relation
holding over utterances, language users and perceived or imagined
settings. The risk in treating metaphors as a preeminently linguistic
phenomenon is that a particular linguistic attitude is adapted: Meanings
can be ascribed to sentence-objects abstracted from communication
settings' (Verbrugge, 1979, 78-9).
Verbrugge's work pushes the redefinition of language and meaning still
further: language and event perception are compatible and mutually
supportive: comprehension may be conceived as a form of catalysis since
event perception guides linguistic action as is shown not only by
metaphor comprehension but also by deictic expressions. In this
articulated system, metaphors are a catalyst for knowing since
metaphorical processes can depend on language as well as on perceptual
experience, coordinated movement and thought; all the cognitive
functions are considered as accomplishing the mutual fitting between an
organism and its environment. The reconciliation between the human
biological organism and his physical environment is fully accomplished
and language is one of the means through which it can be realized. As
'Linguistic actions are similar to other events that provide information
for perception and action; a listener must become attuned to the natural
relations between speech and social settings. In the case of language,
the necessary attunements develop over years of talking and listening in
a particular social environment, in which the natural relations between
speech and setting are highly invariant and slow to change... in both
linguistic and non linguistic events, the relation between indexes and
listeners (or perceivers) is non arbitrary. Perception, thought, and
action are all constrained in highly systematic ways .. .Language
constrains users in non arbitrary ways' (Verbrugge, 1985, 180).
In this theoretical frame, language is no longer conceived as a formal,
representational, mediated, arbitrary, system. It no longer establishes
a separation between the human being and l-iis environment. On the
contrary, it is ttie tool producecj by evolution to realize more complex
and abstract forms of fitting between them.
- Concluding remarks
At this very point it is clear that the required redefinition of
comprehension as well as of meaning is achieved thanks to the definition
of a naturalistic and biological view of human cognitive abilities.
Several paths have been discovered in the long journey from a language
based interpretation of cognitive processes to a cognitive
interpretation of the different functions through which the mutual
interdependence of human beings as biological systems and their
environment is realized. This long and difficult course has been greatly
helped by the study of metaphorical sentence comprehension which finally
addressed the crucial aspects of language, thought and cognitive
activi ty .
Meaning is attually constructed by the duality linking the perceivers to
their physical and social environment. This duality sets the constraints
according to which people act both physically and symbolically on the
environment in a purposeful way. Perception, language, as well as the
other cognitive resources to be properly understood have to be studied
in^their mutual interdependence which expresses the same interdependence
between the organism and its environment.
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Nicoletta Caramelli is associate progessor at the Department of
Psychology of the University of Bologna, Italy.
Paper presented at the First European Congress of Psychology
Symposium: Ecological Psychology: Human Response to Environmental Change
Amsterdam, July 2-7, 1989.